AZUSA, Calif. - The 22nd-ranked University of California San Diego spotted California Baptist University six runs before recording a second out, but roared back for a thrilling 9-8 triumph in a winner's bracket contest of the 2018 NCAA Division II Championship West Regional Friday night at Cougar Baseball Complex. Azusa Pacific University is serving as the host for a second straight year.
Third-seeded UC San Diego extended its current win streak to a season-best 10 games, and reached the 40-win mark for the second straight year under head coach Eric Newman, in moving to 40-15 overall. The Tritons have also now come out on top in 20 of their last 22. Fifth-seeded California Baptist dropped to 34-18.
UC San Diego thus becomes the only unbeaten side left in the six-team, double-elimination tournament, and moves onto another primetime matchup at 7 p.m. on Saturday night. The Tritons' opponent will be the survivor of Saturday's 11 a.m. elimination game between top seed Cal State Monterey Bay and California Baptist. They are also assured now of staying in Azusa through Monday's final day of the event, and will play at 12 p.m. that afternoon regardless of Saturday night's outcome.
For much of Friday night, it looked like it would be UC San Diego with the short turnaround time to save its 2018 campaign, as it trailed 6-0 after just one frame, and still 7-1 after six. Newman's resilient club answered CBU's six-run first, with a six-run seventh, however, on just two hits while taking advantage of critical miscues by the Lancers, to tie the game initially at 7-7. They actually went down again, 8-7, but the teams in fact traded single tallies and came out with an 8-8 deadlock.
That's when UC San Diego's junior star, Zander Clark, stepped up to the plate with one away, and blasted his league-leading 18th home run, opposite-field, over the wall in right. It was his third home run of the tournament, and gave him two RBI on the night, and nine over these first two games in Azusa. The Newbury Park native has 83 RBI on the year, far and away the top total in the CCAA, and No. 2 in the NCAA Division II behind only Delta State's Zack Shannon (87). Clarke is just one shy of matching Brandon Gregorich's single-season program record of 84 from 2010.
Before that shot, the top six in the Triton order had combined to go 0-for-22. In the end, the bottom third of the lineup provided the noticeable spark, as Keenan Brigman, Blake Baumgartner and Nick Kitzmann together went 4-for-10 with a double, hit-by-pitch, five runs, three RBI and a crucial stolen base by Brigman to set up the tying run.
The Tritons still needed three big outs, and senior closer Cameron Kurz (Encinitas/La Costa Canyon HS) was up to the task, providing no further drama and just turning the Lancers away in order, in fact striking out the side, all swinging. He finished with a career-high eight strikeouts, of his 11 batters faced in a career-long outing of 3.0 innings. The fifth one to end the eighth marked a new team single-season program record. UC San Diego is at 473 strikeouts, with a previous standard of 469 from 2015. Kurz (5-1) picked up the winning decision, surrendering just an infield single shortly after coming on in the seventh, and a hit-by-pitch moments later, before retiring his last eight, on seven strikeouts and a groundout. He was perfect in the eighth and ninth.
CBU jumped all over the Tritons with six runs in the first. An infield error, UC San Diego's first of the tournament, started things on the very first pitch. Three straight RBI singles followed a walk and a strikeout. After a mound visit, freshman Harrison Spohn took the first pitch of his at-bat deep to left center for his first collegiate home run, a three-run shot that quickly made it 6-0. The Lancers batted around.
CBU put two men on again in the second on a leadoff single and one-out walk. Kyle Lucke took over for Jack Rupe, Jr., on the hill, and on his second pitch, dialed up a 4-3 inning-ending double play right up the middle to senior second baseman Justin Beck.
The Tritons got one back with a two-out rally in the third. Two strikeouts gave sophomore starter Andrew Bash eight straight retired to begin the game, but Kitzmann ended that run by lining a single to left. Brandon Stewart worked a walk at the top of the order. The second baseman let Tyler Durna's ground ball go through his legs, allowing Kitzmann to score, but Stewart was called out at third on a close play.
Lucke got out of a jam in the third after a two-out walk and ensuing single, getting a hard lineout into Durna's glove at first. He posted his first 1-2-3 frame in the fourth, on a called third strike, groundout and lineout into Alex Eliopulos' glove at third. On the groundout, Beck made a great, sliding play up the middle behind the bag, and fired to Durna, who maneuvered his feet perfectly to stay on the bag and corral it.
Lucke ultimately retired seven straight, breezing through the fifth as well on two groundouts and a flyout.
The Lancers reestablished their six-run cushion, at 7-1, thanks to a leadoff Spohn double in the sixth. Two tough flyouts to Stewart in center did the trick.
The wild visitor seventh saw the Tritons send 10 to the plate and tie the game, capitalizing on significant mistakes by the Lancers, the designated home team. It began low-key enough, with a Shay Whitcomb foulout, but Beck went from a 1-2 count to a seven-pitch walk to fuel things. Brigman singled up the middle, and both advanced a base on a passed ball. Baumgartner came up clutch with a two-run, opposite-field double into the gap in right center to make it 7-3.
Kitzmann and Stewart were hit by 0-1 pitches back to back to load the bases. Bash then appeared to induce the routine, inning-ending, 1-2-3 double play off Durna, but catcher Bryce Macy somehow missed the short toss entirely, allowing two runs to score and leaving Tritons at second and third. Clarke bounced into an RBI groundout for 7-6, with Durna moving to third. He would score on a Bash wild pitch.
The home seventh began with a second costly infield error for the Tritons. Lucke plunked Bash and gave way to Kurz, who got Tommy Bell looking on three tosses. He was up 1-2 on the next batter, too, but John Glenn chopped a ball right into the ground in front of him, which bounded high in the air down the third base line. All Eliopulos could do was track it down for an infield single. With the bases loaded, Kurz hit Ryan Williams to make it 8-7. He rallied from there to get a called third strike and swinging strikeout, still with bases full, to limit the damage and give his side a chance.
UC San Diego in turn got that run right back in the eighth, mostly through Brigman's heroics. The redshirt sophomore leftfielder fouled off a pair of 3-2 pitches before accepting a one-out walk. Baumgartner then took two strikes before expertly driving an opposite-field single to right to put the Tritons in business. Brigman boldly swiped third, which proved to be all the difference as Kitzmann chopped a 2-2 pitch and beat out the relay to enable Brigman to sprint across on the RBI fielder's choice.
Clarke squeezed his big blast in between two perfect Kurz frames, lifting a 1-2 offering from Brody Robinson (0-3) to the opposite field and over the right field wall.
Brigman ignited another game-tying rally in the eighth, fouling off multiple 3-2 offerings before drawing a one-out walk. Baumgartner then went down 1-2 in the count before driving a single to right. Brigman stole third, which was huge as Kitzmann beat the relay on a fielder's choice RBI groundout, enabling Brigman to score and make it 8-8.
Baumgartner finished 2-for-4 with his 10th double, a run and two RBI, while Brigman was 1-for-3 with a walk, two runs and his ninth steal on 10 attempts. Kitzmann went 1-for-3 with his team-best 19th hit-by-pitch, two runs and an RBI.
Rupe went 1.1 innings and allowed six runs, five earned, on five hits and two walks. The senior right-hander out of San Marcos (Mission Hills HS) struck out two. He had earned the winning decision in four straight starts, and separately, in four successive postseason starts dating back to last May. The Tritons have still won each of the seven games that Rupe has begun since returning to the rotation on March 29.
Bash, the Pacific West Conference Player of the Year, gave up seven runs, just two of them earned, on three hits, three walks and three hit-by-pitches over 7.0 frames. He struck out eight. Bash retired the Tritons in order in the first, second and fourth.
The teams were facing off for the first time since an elimination game of the 2014 NCAA West Regional at UC San Diego on May 17, 2014, with the Tritons taking that one as well, 14-5.
Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 31-18 over its 10 NCAA Championship appearances, including a perfect 2-0 against CBU ... This was the Tritons' 20th win away from home in 2018, now 20-9 outside of La Jolla, including a perfect 6-0 at neutral venues ... UC San Diego is 28-31 all-time against CBU ... The Tritons have won six consecutive West Regional games as reigning champs ... Alex Eliopulos is the only Triton to start or even appear in all 55 games ... Brandon Stewart batted leadoff and Shay Whitcomb fifth for the 11th time this season and 10th game in a row ... Zander Clarke (83) and Eliopulos (69) remain 1-2 in the CCAA in RBI ... With one more home run and one more double, UC San Diego continues to lead the CCAA in both categories over Cal State Monterey Bay, 74-56 and 118-111, respectively ... The Tritons have hit at least one double in 22 straight games, with 69 total in this stretch ... Clarke's 83 RBI rank No. 2 on the program's single-season chart, now only one back of Brandon Gregorich's 84 in 2010 ... Clarke remains second nationally in RBI, four back of Delta State's Zack Shannon ... Clarke's 18 home runs are now tied for second on the single-season list, matching former major leaguer and UC San Diego Athletics Hall of Fame inductee Bob Natal (1987) ... UC San Diego is just two walks back of national leader Catawba, whose season is done ... The Tritons last flipped a six-run deficit in an NCAA tournament contest a year ago in an elimination game in Grand Prairie, Texas, rallying from 7-1 down against Quincy with a six-run home fourth, to win 10-8 on May 30 ... Triton great Rick Nowak (1986-88), of the UC San Diego Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2017, was among those in attendance.
2018 NCAA Division II Championship West Regional
Cougar Baseball Complex • Azusa (Double Elimination)
Thursday, May 17
Game 2: No. 5 California Baptist 7, No. 2 Azusa Pacific 4 (15 innings)
Game 1: No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 10, No. 6 Chico State 7
Game 3: No. 3 UC San Diego 22, No. 4 Point Loma 3
Friday, May 18
Game 4: No. 2 Azusa Pacific 17, No. 6 Chico State 1 (Chico State eliminated)
Game 5: No. 4 Point Loma 13, No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 13-12
Game 6: No. 3 UC San Diego 9, No. 5 California Baptist 8
Saturday, May 19
Game 7: No. 5 California Baptist 17, No. 1 Cal State Monterey Bay 10 (CSUMB eliminated)
Game 8: No. 2 Azusa Pacific 10, No. 4 Point Loma 7 (PLNU eliminated)
Game 9: No. 5 California Baptist vs. No. 3 UC San Diego, 7 p.m.
Monday, May 21
Game 10: No. 3 UC San Diego vs. No. 2 Azusa Pacific, 12 p.m.
Game 11: Teams TBD, if necessary
T7: Blake Baumgartner just hit this 2-R 2B to right center after 1-out Beck walk and Brigman 1B up middle. Kitz gets hit by pitch for team-best 19th time to bring up top of order! pic.twitter.com/nufBtEZ4lT— UCSD Triton Baseball (@UCSDbsb) May 19, 2018
Tonight’s final out. Senior closer Cameron Kurz gets John Glenn swinging. Career bests of 3.0 innings pitched and 8️⃣ strikeouts for Cam. 🔥🔥🔥 He and Kyle Lucke picked up Jack Rupe, Jr., and perhaps gave their senior teammate another start. #GoTritons #NCAAD2West #RoadToCary pic.twitter.com/3d0goMfD7t— UCSD Triton Baseball (@UCSDbsb) May 19, 2018